Scarlet Alliance

  You are not logged in Log in
Welcome 中文 ไทย 한걸

Former Indian Prostitute Vows to Fight HIV/AIDS 09 Dec 2005

Source: Reuters By Krittivas Mukherjee

KOLKATA, India, Dec 9 (Reuters) - A former prostitute has taken over as head of a global HIV/AIDS project in eastern India, promising to completely wipe out new infections in one of Asia's biggest red light districts.

Bharati Dey, 40, took over as director of the World Health Organisation-funded HIV/AIDS project for some 6,000 prostitutes of Sonagachi, a teeming red light district in northern Kolkata, formerly known as Calcutta.

"My chief goal is to ensure that not a single sex worker offers her service without condoms. We want to bring down the infection rate to zero," Dey, who took over on Dec. 1, told Reuters.

Sonagachi's HIV/AIDS control programme has brought infection rates down to around five percent from around 90 percent a decade ago, partly by encouraging prostitutes to refuse sex without condoms.

The Sonagachi programme's success saw the U.S.-based Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation use it as a model for a $200 million project in six other Indian cities.

In India, the state runs HIV/AIDS campaigns also through groups like Dey's Durbar Mahila Samanway Samiti, an umbrella organisation of some 65,000 prostitutes in eastern India.

Experts say, the spread of the deadly HIV virus was being fueled in India by millions of poor male migrants who go to cities for work. Some of them get infected after visiting prostitutes and pass it on to their wives in rural areas. "It's very difficult to ensure 100 percent condom use but we will strive to achieve that. We also aim to achieve empowerment of sex workers," Dey said, sitting in her one-room office in the middle of a row of brothels.


Dey became a prostitute at 17 to earn a living for herself and her son after being deserted by her husband.

At Sonagachi, she fought off criminals, bribed policemen to avoid harassment and participated in HIV/AIDS awareness campaigns, asking fellow prostitutes to turn away clients who refused to use condoms.

"Now many sex workers buy condoms with their money and don't wait for the free ones from the government. This means there is growing awareness," said Dey, adding that she does not regret becoming a prostitute.

Experts say it is the effort of people like Dey which could help India contain the spread of HIV/AIDS.

India, which has 5.1 million people living with HIV/AIDS second only to South Africa announced earlier this year that new infections had fallen to 28,000 in 2004 from 520,000 in 2003, sparking disbelief among voluntary groups.

However, UNAIDS last month said the number of new infections in India was far more than what official data showed and epidemics in some pockets were alarming.

In between her long meetings with health workers, Dey leads teams of volunteers through Sonagachi's narrow, stench-filled lanes, telling prostitutes and their clients about the danger of HIV/AIDS.

"Information and awareness is the only weapon. We know that. Our clients have to understand that too."